Hügelkultur, a German concept, translates as ‘hill culture’. Simply put, it means burying lots of wood under soil and then planting into it. Sepp Holzer, the Swiss permaculturalist, broadly popularised it and some american enthusiasts have gone some lengths to propagate it.
We have a large number of tall swaying black poplars that perch on the hill peering over the annuals garden. They grow fast and are weak and, unlike oaks or pines, will not stand for hundreds of years. If we don’t cut them now, or in the next few years, they may fall where the wind and elements decide to lay them, destroying the terraces and gardens beneath them. Subsequently, every winter we’ll slay a few more with our rusty two-person felling saw and we’ll have a surplus of black poplar wood laying about.
We’ve designed quite a few of these hill culture projects into the garden landscape to help use up the wood, feeding our vegetables as they rot down. As hugelkultur and ‘Sepp Holzer style terraces’ are both unwieldy terms in English (Spanish and Gallegan) we’ve settled into calling them ‘high beds’ in contrast to our raised beds.
The principle of working with what we have around us is essential and while most accounts of high beds recommend topping them with up-side down turf, as we’ve cut ours into formerly bramble laden hillside we have no turf to line them with. This certainly does mean the amount of soil we’re topping them with is spartan and we’re planting mostly green manures into them this year around as we essentially have wood that steals nitrogen from soil to rot down covered by a thin layer of soil. In future years as the beds settle in they’ll become far more nutrient rich.
We learned from our first bed and topped it with rotten wood before covering it so that we can plant slightly more needy plants into it straight away. We also covered it with bracken fronds to help hold the soil in place while root seedlings take hold. This helps take the place of the great structure you get from upside turf and it’s tightly knit root network holding the bed together.
We’ve run out wood for this year so won’t be building any until next spring but we’ll continue updating this article as we experiment more/learn more about this technique.